Commuting 101: Ten Quick Tips

This year alone, I’ve run into a few new commuters that are using a bicycle for at least part of their trip. One of them is a long-time friend of mine in Washington, D.C. In discussing bike commuting with these people, it’s apparent that at first “riding a bike to work” seems straightforward, but becomes a little daunting when you set out to try it for the first time — especially for those who haven’t even owned a bike in quite a while.

Here are ten quick tips I’ve been giving people.

10: Learn basic bicycle maintenance. Park Tool and Sheldon Brown both have excellent instructions for bicycle repair. Start with the basics: Cleaning and lubricating your chain, fixing a flat tire, or maybe adjusting your brakes and shifters. In the busy season, it can take almost a week to get your bike looked at by a shop, and you’ll save money doing simple adjustments on your own.

9: Get some tools. This goes with #10, but you should have enough tools to do minor adjustments to your bike. Honestly, I got by for almost six months needing no more tools than what came on the Park MTB-3 multi-tool. I keep it with me while commuting for road-side repairs.

8: Learn how to pick a good route. Don’t think like a driver. Instead, think of lesser-known roads that may be a block or two away from the big roads you normally drive on. Think of little alleyways or sidewalks between cul-de-sacs, and how you can utilize multi-use paths. Find other cyclists in your area to help you brainstorm some routes if you’re having trouble.

7: Logistics. Figure out how you’re going to get yourself, your stuff, and your bike to and from your destination and stored safely. Securing your bike, cleaning up if you get dirty or sweaty, and transporting your clothes are things to think about.

6: Take The Lane! Tim put together an excellent article outlining five reasons to claim the lane with your bike. I can’t convey it any better than he did. If you’re not commuting on a bike path, you should probably be commuting out in the middle of the road where you can be seen.

5: Be visible. Bright colors. Reflective materials on you and your bike. Good lighting. Always, always have DOT-legal reflectors on your bike. It doesn’t matter how “cool” you think you look on your bike. To drivers, cyclists on the road all look dorky. You might as well go all out dork mode, right?

4: Don’t skimp on the bike. Bikes you find at sporting goods stores, toy aisles of big-box stores and the like are sold and marketed as toys that 100-pound 13-year-olds will ride for a summer and forget about. You wouldn’t buy a Power Wheels to get you around town, would you? If you already have an old bike, there’s not much harm in getting it fixed up and checked out at a bike shop. If you are buying a new bike, remember that you’re shopping for a replacement vehicle, not a toy. Browse the new Commuter Bikes Database for bike ideas.

3: Get to know the shops and destinations near you and along your route. Knowing all those little shops near you and your destinations (such as home, work, parks, etc) and along the way is a great way to find stuff that’s easily reachable on a bike. You might be surprised by what is nearby. After looking around, I found that there are few places I need to go that are more than 2 miles from my home or office.

2: Give yourself some time to adjust. It took me a few weeks to get my routine figured out and for my body to get used to riding a bike again. While you’re adjusting, it’s easy to get discouraged by bad planning or sore muscles.

1: Stay motivated. Come up with fun goals or get a riding buddy to keep yourself motivated for the first few months. This makes tip #2 easier to deal with. Soon enough, you’ll be hooked!

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0 thoughts on “Commuting 101: Ten Quick Tips”

  1. Quinn says:

    All good points, I totally agree with #4 HowEver I would say 1 thing more, yes Please get something better than a “mart” bike but don’t go overboard! sure Dura Ace/XT are sweet!, but do you have the money to replace it if something happens to it?

  2. Noah says:

    True. While you can certainly spend as much (or MORE!) than an entry-level car on a high-end bike, my intention was to convey that you should be going to a bike shop to have a knowledgeable associate help you figure out what you want. Really, the new Commuter Bike Database is a great place to start, but you certainly don’t need to drop two or three grand on a Civia Hyland if a Breezer Villager or a Specialized Globe City would provide ample features at a more reasonable price point.

  3. Eric says:

    For me #7 is the most important item. Sometimes I have been unable to ride because I haven’t planned aheah and have too much stuff to haul or there is not a safe place to park my bike. I don’t have any ploblem with my normal work location, it is when I have to go to another site or city.

  4. Fritz says:

    “Learn how to pick a good route.” — Somebody wrote into our local paper’s “Mr. Roadshow” column asking if it’s legal to bike on Highway 87, a busy and high traffic highway through downtown San Jose with many ramps. There are paths almost immediately adjacent, along with parallel routes that are much better than cycling on that highway.

  5. Lesley says:

    This article is well timed. I used to do my full commute by bicycle (following an unfortunate car fire incident), got soft for a year with a newly purchased car, and MISSED my bike. So now I’m biking half the commute and am finding it so hard to get out of my warm effortless car and only my wind-chilly bike. Staying motivated will be a challenge, despite how much i pine to commute the whole trip again.

  6. Siouxgeonz says:

    Hmmm… why are they in reverse order?

  7. kaz_kougar says:

    Number 7 is much more tedious than it sounds. This has become a routine for me. I get all my food for the next day ready the night before (4 out of 6 meals, are eaten in the 9 hours that I am gone at work). I also check the forecast before I go to bed and if it looks like it’ll be nasty, I’ll leave the raingear out and pack the work clothes, if not I’ll pack the raingear and leave work clothes out. It’s amazing how many articles of clothing will fit in a messenger bag when rolled up tightly and they do not wrinkle either! In the morning, I hit the fridge on my way out, load the food and I’m gone!

  8. Iowagriz says:

    For me, it is the little things that made the different. Route choice was the first key, then I found what I could always leave at work. I now have black shoes/belt and brown shoes/belt that always stay at work. I found that losing that extra weight from the pack made all the difference.

  9. Lesley says:

    Iowagriz –

    i’m working on that part for myself. We have lockers and showers here and i am quite foolishly not making use of them yet. We even have partial laundry service.

    Most of my weight on my bike comes from my rain gear. i feel like the second i leave it behind anywhere it will pour rain.

  10. wannaCmore says:

    Nice tips, especially for someone like myself who REALLY wants to, BUT… The ‘but’ in question is my spouse, who takes exception to tip #4. “If you want to get a bike, fine, but you are getting at W-M. You are not getting one from a bike shop because it costs too much.” There are other differences in attitude about cycling between us, but that is the main one. However, I am turning my frustration into motivation. I am advocating to everyone at work that lives in Tulsa they should consider a bike/bus commute. You can get an unlimited ride pass for $35 every month.

  11. kaz_kougar says:


    Is your wife aware of the cost of maintaining a bike? If so is she aware that the cost to maintain a department store bike can be quite more than a bike from your LBSas the department store bikes are equipped with much cheaper components that either wear out quicker or need adjusted more frequently? Have you considered checking Craigslist for a good used bike? As far as the initial cost of a bike from your LBS, you won’t be driving if you’re bike commuting and therefore won’t be buying gas so how long would it really take to pay back a $500 bike?

  12. Nicole says:

    Related to #10 — Another option is to take a free class (that’s what I did). Usually local shops or bigger stores like REI have them on a regular basis.

  13. wannaCmore says:

    Kaz- As a matter of fact, that was the ‘daily debate’ last night. I tried to explain to her a bike from an LBS would be cheaper in the long run, due to related maintainence. The discount/department stores will assemble the bike, but they don’t adjust them, and they are not capable of servicing them. LBSs service what they sell. I know of one shop in town that no longer services ‘bike shaped objects’ from the -marts. That speaks volumes to me. Trust me, if I thought I could pull of commuting by bike on daily basis (43 miles by car), I would go ahead get the bike I wanted, let her yell at me for a month or two until she realized the only fuel being bought was for her car. Rant done for now…

  14. Iowagriz says:

    At my last building, we had coat closets at our cubes. I stored 6 dress shirts at the cube and had them dry cleaned two blocks away. At the peak, I was only carrying socks, pants, underwear, t-shirt and deodorant. Showered in the building, walked upstairs and grabbed a dress shirt, put on the appropriately colored belt/shoes that were left at the desk. Drop off the shirts every 10 days or so.

    l also got a few others to join me by having them drive to work with their stuff. Ride home with me to show them the safe route and then they are forced to ride back into work the next morning. This showed them the way, and lessened the early season physicallity that disappoints many new comers.

  15. CaptCanuck says:

    Preparation is everything – be creative. I converted the armoire style cabinet in my office into a closet using a extension fitted style chin up bar and converted the bottom two lateral drawers to store my socks, toiletries, shoes, etc.

    Other commuters at my office who work in cubicles have taken my cue and converted few of the shared coat closets using hanging garment bags and hanging closet/shoe organizers, etc. The kind with cubby holes in them. This keeps their stuff neat and tidy.

    One day per week I drive in and on that day I bring fresh clothes, a fresh towel, and pack in and a few days of meals that I put in the lunch room freezer. This just helps minimize what I have to pack in (and potentially forget). I actually end up packing out more stuff on the bike ride home than I bring in. So my big preparation is making sure I have a bundle of meals and clean laundry on the day I plan to drive in – which I usually coordinate to be the worst weather day for the week 🙂

  16. Walt says:

    I would add: Get Comfortable. Make adjustments on bike fit, how you carry your stuff and how you dress to eliminate the things that irritate you. There’s no sense in enduring pain just to ride to work. Make it enjoyable.

  17. Anna says:

    I would add: know the traffic rules. Behave predictable, give clear signals, stop at stop signs.

    Ride slowly towards busy intersections and make eye contact with other people(pedestrians or drivers) to ensure they see you before you cross. Safety first.

  18. sarah Rohr says:

    I have a generic 21 speed bike that seems to work well for commuting. I don’t understand how some commuting bikes have one speed. They must be for flat roads because they’d kill themselves on even the smallest hills!

    I had a 10 speed I was using before and after one week gave up and took a taxi for the rest of the year. Once I got the 21 speed the hills were nothing. I’d not recommend anything under a 21 speed bicycle for commuting.

  19. Noah says:

    Sarah: Single speed bikes can be geared somewhat low. Further, riders can stand up to climb surprisingly steep hills with modest gearing on a single-speed bike. Look at all the singlespeed and fixed gear bikes in hilly San Francisco, for example. People who spend a lot of time riding single speed and fixed gear generally tend to get strong enough to get where they want to go. Also, there’s not as many things that can break on a single speed bike. Many commuters enjoy the simplicity of a well-built singlespeed or fixie.

  20. Thanks for your tips. Surely they look very good. Thumbs UP

  21. Dawn says:

    Thanks for the tips. I was thinking of using my old 18 speed huffy to start commuting to work and college, since both are less than 5 miles from my house. I am a bus rider (I don’t have a license) and today I decided to ‘test the bike’ for an errand I had to run. Well, I planned badly and ended up on a road I shouldn’t have been on as it was for high speed car traffic only (seemed like a good idea when I went online and looked at a map). I also had a problem with my chain (it jumped the gears and jammed itself), then my seat became lose and I couldn’t even sit on the bike and didn’t have tools on me to tighten it. I think my test run should have been around the block and not this four mile errand that went soooo bad, lol. But just a few of your tips would have saved me soreness, a lose seat (I now will bring a small tool with me just in case) and ending up in a ‘bad’ road for bike users – especially a new bike user who can’t move all that fast. Unfortunately, my bike did come from a -mart a couple years , but without a car to get to a bike shop, I don’t know how to get it properly checked out.

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